At the current political juncture, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – less than one year old – appear in a state of disarray. Their legitimacy is being challenged after two lawsuits were raised, one questioning the FJP's legal status and the other questioning the recently-formed, Islamist-heavy constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution.
Many of the Brotherhood's critics are now comparing the Islamist group to the former autocratic regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Liberal parties suspended a banner from the Egyptian Press Syndicate building in downtown Cairo reading, “Beware: Egypt is moving in reverse,” while liberal and leftist political figures stood below denouncing Brotherhood policies.
Amid the turmoil, several issues are at play. These include internal challenges, such as unprecedented disobedience among the group's younger cadres, and external factors, such as the public's perception of the Brotherhood.
"Judging by developments over the past few days, I believe the Brotherhood is facing a real crisis on several fronts," said Akram Hossam, an expert on the Brotherhood and the FJP. "Popular acceptance of the Brotherhood following parliamentary elections and at the end of Egypt's transitional phase is beginning to wane."
According to Hossam, many key players once associated with the Brotherhood have distanced themselves from the group, including Kamal El-Halabawi, the international organisation's former spokesman. Others have stayed within the group in hopes of reforming it from within.
FJP Secretary-General Mohamed El-Beltagi, for his part, has denied the existence of fractures within the group's ranks, pointing only to "divergent views" among its members.
According to one Brotherhood source, most members comply with directives issued by the group's authoritative Guidance Bureau out of loyalty, but the group’s consultative Shura Council is free to take decisions democratically.
It now appears that there are serious differences within the group’s political machine. This is not a general phenomenon, but rather one marked by individual cases, according to the source, especially when the group was considering naming a presidential candidate.
The source added that three different currents arose during discussions on the issue of naming a presidential candidate.
First, those who believe that such a move would undermine the group’s credibility and fear that public support for the group is at stake; and second, those who say that the group's shura council is trying to decide on nominating a candidate when the group knows that it will write the constitution. They ask how can it nominate someone – such as Khayrat El-Shater – and write the constitution.
Meanwhile, there is already an inclination within the group to curtail the president’s powers, which puts it in an awkward position, and may not serve its interests in the foreseeable future.
The third group consists of those who are sympathetic to the Guidance Bureau and follow its directives.
"We represent the second group, which believes the Brotherhood should not field a candidate," said the source. "But we haven't decided about the others, because of developments on the political arena that require us to revise this position."
This implies that there is a decision to reverse the position not to nominate a candidate. "Yes, we are changing our position," he said. "We admit it."
These accounts explain the clashes in the shura council among the three currents, which made many who attended the meeting hesitate out of fear of being scolded by the Guidance Bureau. The same goes for the international organisation, according to an informed source, who said that its position was represented by El-Helbawi, even though he is no longer its official spokesman.
El-Beltagi, who is seen as leading the reformist trend within the FJP, became the centre of controversy when reports were leaked a few months ago that he wanted to leave the party and had even prepared his resignation. He denied the rumours, although sources close to El-Beltagi said the matter had been "under discussion" at the time.
However, fears that the party would unravel led to pressure on him to stay within the party, the source explained, “and he would have a free hand to propose what he wanted as long as it did not expose trouble within the group's ranks, and everyone would make do with proposing suggestions to be processed by the Brotherhood hierarchy – either the Guidance Bureau or the shura council.”
El-Beltagi attempted to make changes from within. When there was a fierce debate about the composition of the constituent assembly, for example, El-Beltagi called on some Islamist members to resign to make room for non-Islamist figures.
Brigadier General Safwat El-Zayyat, whom El-Beltagi contacted about joining the assembly, said he would not join the constitution-drafting body “because of its domination by a clique that want nothing more than to appear on television and boast that they are members of the assembly.” He added: “If the Brotherhood was more politically shrewd, they wouldn't have kept such a large percentage of seats for themselves.”
The principle of strict obedience is a Brotherhood tradition and key to understanding the group's current position, according to observers from within the Brotherhood, such as FJP spokesman Ahmed Sabie. When news leaked that the party would reverse its position on fielding a presidential candidate, Sabie described dissent among the group's younger cadres as a "small fraction."
However, Mohamed El-Hadidi, El-Shater’s brother-in-law, led the dissent to demonstrate that opposition to the Brotherhood's stance on the issue was widespread, and that this group might consider other action if the group did not revise its position.
There were other leaks as well. A member of Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh’s campaign described the Brotherhood's position on Abul-Fotouh's presidential bid as an "individual stance" taken by the group's General Guide, and not necessarily the position of everyone in the group.
This is why the former guide said that the Brotherhood could support Abul-Fotouh, and that he himself thought highly of the presidential contender. These statements were immediately met by others from the guide, who asserted that the group’s refusal to support Abul-Fotouh was final.
More ominous is the Brotherhood's sense of being under attack on the street due to these conflicting positions. Sabie said that a "war" was raging against the Brotherhood at this critical point, admitting that Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was leading the campaign – but expressed doubt that this would result in a clash. “Relations are strained, but it won't lead to confrontation,” he said.
A false document
Meanwhile, a document was published on several social networks claiming to be the minutes of a Brotherhood Shura Council meeting. Brotherhood leaders were quick to deny its authenticity, including group spokesman Mohamed Ghazlan, who described it as an intentional attempt to distort the group’s image.
FJP spokesman Sebie also denied the authenticity of the document, which accuses the SCAF of manufacturing crises in Egypt, wanting to be represented in the government and presidency, manipulating political forces to confront the Brotherhood, inciting the media against the group and its party, and seeking to keep Egypt's parliament toothless – not to mention the possibility of the SCAF rigging upcoming presidential elections.
According to the document, the Brotherhood called on its grassroots supporters to oppose the SCAF and its policies, incite the street, call for a million-man demonstration demanding civilian rule, and distribute flyers exposing SCAF transgressions.
A source close to security circles and the Brotherhood who saw the document said it proclaimed that the SCAF’s presidential candidate was Ahmed Shafiq, and that Mubarak-era intelligence czar Omar Suleiman was the threat that the group was most worried about – both accurate revelations, without a doubt.
The source added, however, that the Brotherhood and the SCAF were both trying to avoid clashing with one another, despite recent exchanges of barbs and threats. But in the absence of anyone on either side being able to clear the air, he added, this risked resulting in confrontation.
The political map is dominated by the Brotherhood and its ambitions, about which the SCAF has become leery, especially since the latter did not deny the contents of the document regarding Majors General Mokhtar El-Molla and Mahmoud El-Assar expressing such fears in international forums.
Within hours, young Brotherhood members in Cairo – specifically in Nasr City – distributed a flyer bearing the title "A statement from the Muslim Brotherhood about the obstacles facing the handover of power to civilian representatives of the people." The flyer was distributed because the Brotherhood believes that "creating the constitutional institutions needed to take over power from the SCAF is the correct and stable path to achieving the goals and aspirations of the revolution." The statement listed several problems currently plaguing the country, blaming them squarely on the SCAF.